Creating a Thriving National Postsecondary Education Data Ecosystem

​Archie P. Cubarrubia, Vice Provost, Institutional Effectiveness, Miami Dade College  

On May 18, 2016, the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP)
released a series of 11 papers envisioning a national postsecondary education data ecosystem for the 21st century. The papers are the result of a year-long effort to think differently about the way we collect and disseminate information about our students and our institutions to meet the increasingly complex needs of the higher education community. I had the honor of co-chairing this effort with Patrick Perry, Chief Information Officer for the California State University Chancellor’s Office, and can attest to the richness of the dialogue that informed the work of the 17 paper authors.  

As we well know, our current national postsecondary data infrastructure is uncoordinated and fragmented. Institutions report different kinds of data to different government agencies and private organizations in collections that were built for different purposes and often use different formats and definitions. For many of us in institutional research, compliance with state, federal, and voluntary reporting represents a lion’s share of our core activities.1 However, despite the burden associated with preparing, verifying, and submitting data to multiple entities, fundamental questions about the success of all students and the effectiveness of taxpayer investments in our institutions remain unanswered.  

In the IHEP paper series, we challenge ourselves to evolve the existing national postsecondary education data infrastructure into an ecosystem—a dynamic, agile, and mutually beneficial environment whose survival depends on the optimal performance of each component system and the relationships between them. These papers represent some of the field’s best thinking about improvements to institutional, state, federal, and national data systems that can finally move conversations—some of which have been transpiring for many years—from conceptual to practical. 

Work on this project was guided by several principles. First, we agreed that improvements must advance student equity and success. Second, improvements must result in increased efficiency in data collection, reporting, and use. However, vague pronouncements of “decreasing burden” are unhelpful. Discussions about burden would be more productive if they are about what and how much data about students and institutions are worth reporting. Third, improvements must result in flexibility and agility that allow the ecosystem to address data needs today and 20 years from now. Finally, improvements cannot come at the expense of students’ privacy or the security of their records.  

The recommendations in the papers address policy and technical issues related to data collection and dissemination in institutional, state, federal, and national data systems. They include the following:  

  • Improve the capacity of institutions to report accurate, timely, and relevant data 
  • Collect new data elements; eliminate others 
  • Improve access to data 
  • Keep individual data private and secure 
  • Improve linkages between existing datasets 
  • Remove legal barriers to data use 

In addition, the recommendations are presented with key considerations for implementation, including clarifying governance; building some level of consistency through application of data standards and common definitions; defining allowable data uses for each system and across systems; improving state and federal policy to promote data sharing; managing costs against potential benefits; ensuring students’ privacy and security; and increasing institutional capacity to produce quality data.  

How Institutional Researchers Can Help 

As the primary reporters of student data, institutional researchers play a critical role in creating a thriving national postsecondary education data ecosystem.  

  • First, we must make ourselves available to inform policy conversations about data at the state and federal levels. For example, policymakers may rely on generalized notions of institutional burden, but we are intimately familiar with the nuances of data collection, preparation, and reporting to ensure that the data we report to local, state, federal, and national agencies and organizations are of the highest quality. Similarly, we know which data elements currently being collected in state and federal systems are most useful to answer questions about student success and institutional effectiveness and which ones are not. We are the best advisers to policymakers on how to improve the components of the national postsecondary education data ecosystem. 
  • Second, we must demonstrate to the broader higher education community what’s possible with better data. We who collect and report student-level data know what insights can be gained by having privacy-protected, secure access to better data within and across different systems. We should continue to lift such promising practices through increased scholarship and make sure they reach those outside the institutional research profession. 
  • Finally, we must improve our own capacity to meet demands for increasingly complex data and analyses to inform institutional improvement and public accountability. The future of the institutional research profession is already here. AIR’s Statement of Aspirational Practice for Institutional Research outlines steps we can take now to better support student success and institutional effectiveness efforts.  

Together with faculty and institutional leaders, we can help the higher education community build an agile and effective national postsecondary education data ecosystem that will allow all of us with a stake in the enterprise—institutions, policymakers, advocates, and students and families—to focus on what truly matters: student success. 

1 Swing, R. L., Jones, D., and Ross, L. E. (2016). The AIR National Survey of Institutional Research Offices. Association for Institutional Research, Tallahassee, Florida. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from 




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